A Brief Note on the Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism

A number of people on social media and in the news today have been expressing anger at the Sanders campaign for refusing to withdraw from candidacy moving into the Democratic National Convention. The campaign–so the complaint goes–has lost any serious chance at the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and should withdraw, because any refusal to withdraw at this point only serves to undermine party unity in the face of its opposition to Trump in the general election. This complaint is based on two related assumptions:

  1. That the only point to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency was to actually win the presidency.
  2. That disrupting the vote against the presumptive Republican nominee (Trump stand in here, but if it had been Cruz or anyone else, I don’t think we can imagine that the rhetoric would differ) is a tacitly conservative move, because the political arena is circumscribed by two electoral options.

These two assumptions seem predicated, however, on forgetting the terms of Sanders’ original run, and on foreclosing a host of alternative conceptions of politics. In the first case, those angry with Sanders’ continued run have forgotten that the original goal of the Sanders campaign was never to directly seek the presidency. The massive outpouring of support and momentum that made his nomination appear to be a real possibility during the primary season came as no less of a surprise to Sanders campaigners than it did to the political punditry. Instead, Sanders originally campaigned in a bid to pressure the Democratic platform in a leftward direction. This is not to say that the real possibility of gaining the nomination didn’t come as a pleasant surprise, or that it was hypocritical to reach for that goal while it appeared possible. Insofar as exerting platform pressure was the initial goal, however, and insofar as the tradition for Democratic candidates moving into the DNC after the primaries is to reposition rightward in an attempt to prepare for the general election, maintaining the campaign as long as possible is completely consistent with that goal, and building party unity would in fact be antithetical to that goal.

This, in turn, brings up the second issue: is disrupting the unity of the Democratic party a tacitly right-wing move, insofar as anything that’s not beneficial to the Democrats is beneficial to the GOP? While I’d hesistate to directly identify Sanders and leftism, what these reactions seem to obscure are a few fundamental differences between liberal and leftist politics, and those differences are worth reiterating, because they’re a helpful proxy for the obscured premise of the reactions in question.

It’s a basic tenet of any left theory of politics that the State, and thus electoral politics, are not the primary locus of political struggle. This is because, insofar as left theory incorporates some form of a critique of capital, it also entails a critique of the form of the liberal State. What this means, in brief, is that in contrast to liberalism, where the apparatus of the State (rightly ordered, of course) is taken to be the very thing that makes politics possible, leftisms have to theorize a locus for politics that logically precedes the State. The State has to have a genesis. Now, obviously, different forms of leftism are going to identify the key locus of politics, or the key antagonism that politics must address very differently. But it’s only for the liberal–who, by necessity, sees the form of the State as a condition for politics to be legible at all–that there are only two options, and that to harm the Democratic party is to benefit the right. For leftists, not only is the Democratic party itself part of “the right,” but the location of political antagonism is to be found elsewhere, as is the locus of political struggle. Involvement in the electoral process may or may not be tactically pertinent, but either way, it’s not the plane upon which politics plays out, as leftist movements have historically understood.

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One thought on “A Brief Note on the Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism

  1. Some interesting thoughts, distinctions and clarifications. This notion of leftists as seeking a genesis for the state specifically is certainly something I would like to consider further myself. I am not inclined to the left at all myself the last couple of years I have moved further and further away from it thanks to the kind of wishy washy Liberal ideas on the left that seem to have come to dominate lately

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